VA suicide prevention efforts drop drastically due to lack of leadership, report finds

Emily Rappleye (Twitter) - Print  | 

Due to a lack of leadership, the Department of Veterans Affairs largely failed to conduct suicide prevention outreach over the past two fiscal years, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

The rate of suicide among veterans is twice that of the civilian population, with an estimated average of 20 veterans dying from suicide daily. Because of this, suicide prevention was the top clinical priority for the agency in 2018. 

However, the GAO found the VA has let millions of dollars of funding for suicide prevention outreach go unspent in 2017 and 2018 due to leadership turnover and absenteeism. Here are five takeaways from the report.

1. In fiscal 2018, the agency had a $17.7 million media budget to spend on outreach efforts for both suicide prevention and mental health. Within that budget, $6.2 million was earmarked for suicide prevention outreach. As of September 2018, just $57,000 had been spent.

2. VA officials said they planned to spend $1.5 million and redirect the rest of the funds at the end of 2018. They arrived at this decision because approval of a media plan was delayed due to leadership changes within the VA, according to the report.

3. Outreach was limited to previously planned activities, which included 25 keyword search advertisements, 20 billboards and eight radio advertisements. In comparison, in fiscal 2015, the VA ran 58 digital ads, 30 billboards, 180 bus ads, 19,000 radio ads, 252 print ads and 29 movie theater ads.

4. The agency is also behind in running suicide prevention public service announcements. It let more than a year go by without airing a PSA — marking the first gap in PSAs longer than a month since June 2012. As of August, the VA had developed but not aired one of its two required annual PSAs.

5. The role of national director for suicide prevention was vacant from July 2017 to April 2018, according to the report. An acting director was placed in the role in October 2017, and this person was brought on permanently in April. However, officials told the GAO that leadership was unavailable for weekly meetings and unavailable to sign off on decisions.

Read more here.


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